The Net neutrality debate often descends into the kind of partisan dementia found on Fox News and MSNBC. It doesn't have to.
In the debate today, carriers claim they need to regulate what users do on their networks (including the Internet, whose traffic moves through carrier networks for part of the journey) because data usage is growing 10 times as fast as the revenue from data, causing bandwidth shortages and threatening their economic viability.
Users freak out at the regulated-usage idea, saying that no one should play Big Brother with their information consumpution. They also note how obscenely profitable the carriers are despite their protestations of economic doom, and they suspect the carriers are trying to lock them into proprietary services and favored partners, as has been the pattern for years.
Users are right to distrust the carriers, who are infamous for offering unlimited plans that are secretly limited (you find out only when your account is blocked), for their walled garden of tacky apps, for their high roaming fees and other surprise surcharges, and for uneven service quality.
But the carriers have a point: As more and more people use mobile devices to access the increasing number of cloud services and to watch videos and perform other high-bandwidth activities, something has to give -- especially in light of the crazies who block the deployment of additional cell towers to ease bandwdith congestion in the name of irrational radiation fears.
I spoke recently to Chris Hoover, vice president of product management at Openet, an Irish firm that provides carriers with technology to manage usage policies, such as allocating family plan minutes and managing cell tower access during periods of congestion. His description of what is possible -- as well as what is not -- got me to thinking that the kind of policy management tools his firm offers could be used to solve the wireless Net neutrality problem. Alternatively, this could also give carriers the tools with which to screw us all over. (Blame me for the policy ideas here, not Hoover or Openet.)
It could also help businesses effectively deal with the increasing reality of smartphones and iPads being used as dual-purpose work/personal devices -- or find a new way to exert control over bring-your-own smartphones and slates. (If you don't care about the Net neutrality issues, but are concerned about how business can better manage dual-use mobile devices, skip ahead.)
The congestion problem
Carriers face two real congestion problems in data usage, especially in cellular networks.
One is high simultaneous usage, such as when people congregate at a ballpark during a game or at a train station during rush hour. Although the individual usage per person may not be that much, there are often too many connections for the local cell towers to handle, resulting in dropped calls, stuttered streaming, and slow uploads and downloads.